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IRA FLATOW, host:

Moving from Pisa to New York, for the rest of the hour, we are going to be talking about taking pictures of your brain from outside of your head. Figure out what is going on inside of your head. This field is called functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI and it lets scientists monitor the flow of blood within the human brain as it works or responds to various stimuli. The idea is that when a part of your brain is stimulated and jumps into action, the body sends extra blood to that part of the brain to support that action.

FMRI scans the brain without potentially harmful x-rays, and it detects this increased flow of blood which shows up on a computer monitor, and you can actually see which parts of the brain have become more active. Scientists assigned a little color to that section. They tell the computer to make that a little more colorful and we can actually see that sort of lighting up.

And using fMRI, scientists can literally, they can watch people think. They can watch how drugs and alcohol work on the brain, affect behavior, watch so to speak for clues about how the mind makes up its mind. And for the rest of the hour, we are going to talk about some of the intriguing news that is coming out of this research, including findings this week that show how alcohol can lead to risky behavior.

We can actually see that happening in the brain. If you would like to talk about it, fMRI, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Or you can surf over to our website where we have got an actual fMRI scan that we did at Columbia University this week for everyone out there. It shows you a demonstration on video. You can watch it.

Also, we are in Second Life for our - go to our Second Life Science Friday Island. We will take your questions from our avatars. Helping me walk through this with you is Jack Grinband. He is a research scientist at the department of neuroscience and program in cognitive sciences at Columbia University Medical Center. He is here in our New York studios. Welcome to Science Friday.

Dr. JACK GRINBAND (fMRI Research Center, Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, Columbia University Medical Center): Hi, Ira. Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You know, people hear of MRI - when they hear of athletes being hurt, they get an MRI. How is that different from fMRI?

Dr. GRINBAND: When athletes get scanned, they get what is called a "structural MRI." So we can see the structure of their knee or elbow or something like that. What we do is functional MRI. So we want to know what is happening over time, what is changing over time. And the thing that we are mostly interested in is blood flow.

FLATOW: So there - in one case, you are taking a snap shot in your fMRI. You are watching it progress.

Dr. GRINBAND: Yes, we, we scan individuals over the course of, say, five to ten minutes, and we can see which areas of the brain become activated, have more blood going to those areas over the course of an experiment.

FLATOW: OK, we are going to come back and talk lots more with Dr. Grinband, and also take your questions. 1-800-989-8255. Talking about fMRIs. Lots of interesting stuff coming out about watching your brain work, what can we tell from it? What can we not tell? Stay with us. We will be right back.

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FLATOW: You are listening to Talk of the Nation's Science Friday. I am Ira Flatow. We are talking this hour about brain scanning, functional magnetic resonance imaging, with my guest, Dr. Jack Grinband at Columbia University. And just to give you an idea of how fruitful this research is or how active it is, so to speak, I am going to read you some of the headlines we have pulled off the Internet on different research projects going on around the country and the world.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago are looking at how compounds in marijuana affect the brain, looking for roots for better anti-anxiety drugs, using fMRI. Stanford researchers say that the heterosexual men exposed to erotic photos are more likely to take larger financial risks. You are shaking your head. You can't understand it - than they otherwise should.

A team of Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital in McGill University in Canada aims to ensure the highest quality of life for patients by assessing their cognitive skills before, during and after brain tumor surgery. Scientists at NIH are using the technique to look at how people respond to others of higher and lower status.

And their study suggests that our responses to these social hierarchies are hard wired into our brains. And finally, this study we picked up is in the journal Cognition last month, and it found that the public views news stories as more scientifically sound when accompanied a flashy brain image.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So, do these all sound familiar to you?

Dr. GRINBAND: Yes, I think the beauty of fMRI is that it is not invasive and there is virtually no risk. So, it doesn't require new radioactive substances or doesn't require you to you know, inject anybody with anything.

You can take any individual off the street, put them in the scanner, and see how their brain is activated by different stimuli. And what that is producing now is a huge expansion of this research where everybody is trying to understand how the brain responds to different types of stimuli.

FLATOW: All right. Let us bring on our first guest. You will sit here and act as my referee, please, and keep me honest. And that is John-Dylan Haynes. He is the head of the Attention and Awareness Research Group at the famous Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.

He is one of the authors of a paper published recently in the journal Nature and Neuroscience using fMRI to study the decision-making process in the human brain, and he's on the line from London. Welcome to the program, Dr. Haynes.

Dr. JOHN-DYLAN HAYNES (Group Leader, Attention and Awareness Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences): Hello.

FLATOW: Thank you for joining us. Describe for us what tests you did, what the subjects were looking at and what you were looking for and what you were testing for and what the results were?

Dr. HAYNES: Well, we were interested in the question, how people make simple decisions. In this case, people were given a button into their left and right hands, and we scanned their brain activity while we instructed them to spontaneously, at some point, make up their mind and press either left or right button.

And the question we had was, how does the point when they feel that they're making their decision relate to brain activity that leads up to this decision? Is it possible that the decision points when the people think that they're making up their mind is actually determined by brain activity that happens before?

And to look at this, we use sophisticated statistical techniques that analyze spatial patterns of brain activity similar to techniques that you would use when you analyze fingerprints and try and recognize fingerprints. And we applied this to brain signals that we acquired before people had made up their minds, and we found that we can predict how they were going to decide seven seconds before they felt they were making up their mind.

FLATOW: So, you know which button - by looking at the fMRI, you knew which button they were going to press.

Dr. HAYNES: Absolutely. You don't just know that they're going to press the button, but the second question that we could show ahead of time, but we can tell exactly which of the two buttons they're going to choose.

FLATOW: Wow. Sounds almost like that movie where they knew what crime was going to be committed before they've committed the crime, you know? What was the name of that movie again?

Dr. HAYNES: Absolutely. I mean, it sounds very similar to the "Minority Report" movie.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Dr. HAYNES: You can - I mean, it's not quite the same, because in that case, the "Minority Report" movie, the - it's possible to detect that someone has some kind of intention to commit a crime. But in this case, we could even predict someone's intention before they themselves know that they have it.

FLATOW: Wow. And do we know what's going on in those seven seconds? I mean, the time between when they know - they subconsciously know that they're going to make the decision, and they press the button?

Dr. HAYNES: Well, it seems that the decision is developing over this time, that it's slowly building up in the brain. There's a whole cascade of unconscious brain processes would lead up to the point in time when the person finally feels that now they're making up their mind. I think what it tells us is that you can see this in two different ways. You can either say that there's an antagonism there, there's basically my free will...

FLATOW: Mm hm.

Dr. HAYNES: That my conscious free will and my brain activity, somehow, dictating what my - how my free will is - are going to decide. A different way of viewing this is to say that the brain is actually being very helpful there. It's freeing you from all the processing load - all these little details you have to think about when you make a decision.

They don't have to pass through your consciousness. They are dealt with by unconscious brain activity, and finally, when the brain has made up its mind, it's kind of come to a conclusion, then your conscious mind kicks in.

FLATOW: Wow. Jack. Comment?

Dr. GRINBAND: Yeah, so I have a question for you. Some philosophers have claimed that we actually don't have a free will and that all of our behavior is mediated by unconscious processes and it seems like what your experiment is showing is that there's activity in the brain that is predicting behavior without any conscious process.

Dr. HAYNES: Possibly, yes.

Dr. GRINBAND: So are we all zombies as the philosophers claim?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HAYNES: Well, then we're more than zombies. I think we're 50 percent zombies or 80 percent zombies and the 20 percent is like a tip of the iceberg that reaches the consciousness. So basically, the unconscious processes seem to be doing all the nitty-gritty details that we don't really want our consciousness to be overloaded with. And the consciousness can then deal with nice things.

For example, it's informed - it's at the level of the consciousness. We know what decision we're making, and I think it - this nicely - dovetails with other research showing that's a lot of decision situations can be dealt with most effectively if we maybe can choose these judgment. If we follow our feelings and we don't know why it's necessary to know why we feel one of two alternatives or several terms is right, or is preferred over another.

We somehow feel that the gut feeling says that this is the correct answer. this is the correct solution. this is the way to go. And I think this is, again, unconscious brain processes that make a decision for us. They give us a judgment and then we can - the conscious mind can then build upon this. Similar to a good secretary preparing a decision for you.

FLATOW: So, do you say, your gut feeling may actually be up in your gray matter some place?

Dr. HAYNES: Well, I think gut feeling means that it's something to do with emotions, with feeling. We, somehow, have the feeling that something is right. It feels good to make the right decision, and definitely, brain science says that our feelings, our emotions, are definitely coded in the brain, and certainly not in the body, and definitely not in the gut.

Dr. GRINBAND: Did you ever see the brain have a conflict during this time? Could you see it decide back and forth which button to push?

Dr. HAYNES: Well, our resolution is not good enough at the moment that we would be able to see the oscillation, the waxing and waning, between two different alternatives. For that, we'd need more powerful brain scanners, and the parts of the brain where these decisions emerge are very hard to image from, and that's presumably the reason why we can't predict perfectly how someone is going to decide.

Dr. GRINBAND: What do you mean hard to image from?

Dr. HAYNES: Well, it's a part of the brain that's right at the front of the brain. it's called the frontal polar cortex. This part of the brain is a little bit tricky to image from because there are airfields' regions nearby in the brain, and so it's very noisy part of the brain due to biophysical reasons to image from.

So, we know that if we find the certain amount of information in the brain with the scanner from this region, we know that it's quite likely that there's more information actually in the neuro-processes, in the firing of the neurons, in this tissue.

Dr. GRINBAND: So, Dr. Haynes, how do we know that the subjects actually experienced consciousness when they said they experienced the consciousness, when they actually reported it? Is it possible that they experienced the conscious perception of their decision prior to when they actually indicated that they did?

Dr. HAYNES: This is a very good question, and we actually paid quite a lot of details of this question. You could, of course, say that they make up their mind seven seconds prior to the point when they say they're making up their mind. But there's some evidence in the study that this is not what's going on. So, if people know which button they have to press, then you can decode or read out a brain activity.

As soon as they've made up their mind, you can immediately decode from their brain activity how - which button they're going to press. You see this in motor cortex and parts of the brain that's related to movement preparation. So immediately, the information goes all the way almost until the finalized motor response.

And in this case, what we see is that this is very early brain information that's there in this frontal polar cortex is the region that seems to be preparing the decision is there, but there is no information for a couple of seconds in this movement processing area. So, it seems it's not likely that people are making up their mind - they're thinking, I'm going to press left, but I'm going to wait a few seconds until I report my response.

FLATOW: So, where would you like to go with this research now? What's your next step?

Dr. HAYNES: So, ultimately, we can't perfectly predict how someone is going to decide. So, of course, it'll be nice to go into the question of free will with this experiment, and we can't finally rule out free will with this experiment. I mean, there are physical reasons to not believe in free will, but the biological reasons are not that convincing to date.

So, what you need to show is you need to show that you can predict someone's decision 100 percent of cases and that they can't - as soon as this brain activity builds up, they can't change their mind. And this is something that, to date, haven't really been shown and this is something - a direction we're going in. A second direction is, of course, the decision to make a left- or right-button press is not something that people are terribly committed to.

They make these decisions and they are free decisions. We don't tell them which button to press. But of course, it's much more interesting to look at decisions, for example, which car someone is going to buy or which relationship they're going to choose. Decisions where they really care about, and I think this is something what we'd like to develop approaches, to look into this as well.

FLATOW: Well, that's quite interesting, and I want to thank you for taking time to be with us, Dr. Haynes.

Dr. HAYNES: Oh, it was a pleasure. Bye.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend. John-Dylan Haynes, head of the Attention and Awareness Research Group at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. Let's see if we can get a question in before we go to the break. Let's go to Kate in Stony Brook, New York. Hi, Kate.

KATE (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

KATE: First, I'd like to dedicate this question to the late Albert Hofmann, who passed away recently, if I could. But I was wondering how this research might - if there might be studies on the effect of psychedelic drugs on the brain? And if that might bring that research the forefront with treating mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, based on looking at what happens to the brain?

FLATOW: Can we use...

KATE: And I'll take my comments off the air.

FLATOW: OK. Let me see if Jack Grinband can answer that.

Dr. GRINBAND: Yes, that's actually a very active area of research, and one of the titles that you mentioned earlier in the show was exactly that. They were looking at the effect of marijuana or TCH on the brain, and so this is something that we can study with fMRI and we can basically use almost any drug that's available and see what effect it has on different populations.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about fMRI research at this hour in Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. here with Jack Grinband of Columbia University's Department of Neuroscience and Program and Cognitive Sciences.

There's just - there's no limit, and I guess what scientists always wanted, they want better tools, right? You'd like to get into that area in the front where the air is and you can't get in there, can you? And is there any way that you might be able to use sonar? I mean, I don't know what, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GRINBAND: There are techniques that people are developing right now. They try to address that with more powerful magnets. You can get around that. There are little inserts that you can put in your mouth that help remove the artifact and allow you to visualize this area.

FLATOW: And you are personally interested in decision-making, are you?

Dr. GRINBAND: Yes, that's my area of expertise.

FLATOW: That and how we make these decisions. I remember seeing a paper a few months ago, might have been a year ago, because my memory is gone, that talked about the conflict that goes inside the brain, watching the brain on fMRI. We told somebody to lie, and should I lie? Should I not lie? That sort of thing. It was fascinating to see the brain light up all over the place.

Dr. GRINBAND: Yes, so fMRI can be used to predict how people will behave and this is an example, the paper we just talked about, was an example of that, and lying is just another example of different choices that people make. The question with lying is whether we can apply this in a practical way to interrogate people, for example.

FLATOW: People have asked, can we make a lie detector out of it.

Dr. GRINBAND: Right, right. And I think we're very far away from that because we have to have very compliant subjects who don't move, and we have to scan them for a long time and average a lot of data to see this effect. It's not clear that we're anywhere near the point where we could just put somebody in the scanner, tell them - well, ask them if they're telling the truth, and then we would know.

FLATOW: Let's talk about cause and effect, for example. When you say something, we say the brain lights up in a certain area.

Dr. GRINBAND: Right.

FLATOW: But can we go the other direction? If we see the brain light up in a certain area, do we know what they're thinking about?

Dr. GRINBAND: Yes. so that's the direction people want to go, but that's a very dangerous direction to go into, because there is no one-to-one relationship between brain activity and a particular thought process. So, different thought processes will activate the same area. So, knowing that that area is active does not allow you to go backwards and tell you what the person was actually thinking.

FLATOW: There may be lots of places that light up.

Dr. GRINBAND: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And some areas that light up may be specific to that particular thought process or task and some are non-specific, that is, they may be related to being awake or paying attention or things that all tasks require but are not specific to any one particular process.

FLATOW: A minute before the break. I'm going to give you the blank-check question early in the show. I would say, if you had a blank check and could spend it on anything, what would you want to buy with it for research purposes?

Dr. GRINBAND: Oh, wow.

FLATOW: Or where would you like to go? Are you listening Columbia? He's going to ask for a big piece of equipment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GRINBAND: I suppose we need a more powerful magnet, and actually, I think that the direction that we're really going into is using multiple modalities simultaneously with fMRI so we can stimulate the brain using a technique called TMS. We can look at brain waves using EEG. And if we can do these things simultaneously, then we can really begin to understand what different areas are doing.

FLATOW: Do a lot more research, observation, which is all part of science. Yes?

Dr. GRINBAND: Exactly.

FLATOW: OK. We're going to take a short break, fast, and then we come back and talk lots more with our guest about the brain imaging. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

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FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the brain research this hour. Watching the brain light up when it does things. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, is our number if you'd like to talk about the brain research. My guest is Jack Grinband of Columbia University, who specializes in decision-making in the brain.

I'm going to talk now - another guest, bring him on to talk about decision-making in the brain in his research. And he is Tom Eichele, a professor in the Department of Biological and Medical Psychology and a member of the Bergen FMRI Group of the University of Bergen in Bergen, Norway. He's looking at what happens in the brain when you're doing some kind of boring, repetitive task and you make a mistake. He joins us by phone. Welcome to the program.

Dr. TOM EICHELE (Bergen FMRI Group, University of Bergen): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi. Tell us what experiment you conducted in the fMRI mission. What were you looking for and what did you discover about making mistakes here.

Dr. EICHELE: So, the task that people were doing was the so-called (unintelligible) which is a very simple thing. You have people looking at a screen with arrows, and they're supposed to pay attention to a central arrow that's shown in the middle of the screen and they're supposed to push a left- or right-hand button.

And what happens is that the central arrow is flanked by some other arrows which can be in the same direction or in a different direction, and if the flankers point into the different direction of the central arrow, people make about 15 to 20 percent errors all the time over the - in the experiment.

And that's what we basically did. This is a pretty standard - well, performance-monitoring task, if you will, and we basically ask the question, what happens before they, the subjects, make an error in this task? What happens in the brain if there's some type of activity that we could image that indicates that they're about to make an error?

FLATOW: And could you see them - can you see something happening before they made the error?

Dr. EICHELE: Yeah indeed. We see two networks in - one in the frontal lobe, particularly in right inferior frontal gyrus, and one in the middle of the parietal lobe in the posterior singlelet (ph) and the precuneus, and these two network changes their activity levels gradually overtime. So what happens is that the frontal lobe, over half a minute or so, decreases its activity across trials and the precuneus increases its activity. And that happens to accumulate before an error happens.

FLATOW: Ah, so you could predict that the error is going to happen.

Dr. EICHELE: Yeah, to some proportion, we could predict that an error is going to happen. So if you have this particular pattern in these two networks, then the likelihood that you're going to commit an error is about 50 percent higher than if you don't have it. And there are a certain states of these networks that if you reduce likelihood of making errors.

FLATOW: And this is - you can predict this over and over again. Interesting. Do we know what's going on there? Why this prediction is possible?

Dr. EICHELE: So the frontal lobe or these regions in the frontal lobe have often been associated with task, effort, this maintaining task, effort in cognitive control. So these are the regions that keep you performing this task according to the task rule that the experimenter sets up, and the region in the posterior part in the mid-line of the parietal lobe, it usually seen active or more active when people have nothing particular to do in the scanner.

So, this is part of the so-called "default mode network," which Mark Raichle of Washington University has first described, and this is a, well, pretty tricky network, in terms of what it does. So, it's active when people don't do anything.

FLATOW: When they get bored and they lose concentration or focus and that's what happens.

Dr. EICHELE: That's one interpretation, yeah. That seems to be more straightforward. So they're doing this task and the task doesn't change if not very salient in terms of the usual real life conditions under which stimuli are salient and they begin to automate the task to a degree that they run the risk of making an error, yeah.

FLATOW: All right, Dr. Eichele. Thank you for taking time to be with us.

Dr. EICHELE: Yeah, it was my pleasure.

FLATOW: Tom Eichele, a professor in the Department of Biological and Medical Psychology and a member of the Bergen fMRI Group at the University of Bergen in Bergen, Norway. And we're talking this hour about the fMRI research in the brain and Jack Grinband is here from Columbia. We're going to bring on another guest. We're going right through this, there's so much to talk about, Jack. It's Friday afternoon.

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FLATOW: Maybe you're looking ahead to a happy hour after work, but why do you - why do people like to drink? Well, you know, sure, it tastes good. It makes you feel a little bit relaxed, of course. But what really goes on inside your head when you're drinking?

Joining me now is Jodi Gilman. She's research fellow at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the NIH in Bethesda, and she's one of the authors of a report published this week in the fournal of Neurology on using fMRI to examine why people like to drink. She participated in the research while at Brown University. Welcome to the program, Dr. Gilman.

Dr. JODI GILMAN (Research Fellow, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health): Thank you.

FLATOW: Is there any question why people like to drink?

Dr. GILMAN: Well, it's funny you ask. People have used alcohol for thousands of years to feel good and to decrease anxiety. And alcohol is often used in group settings to increase sociability, but how alcohol actually acts from the brain to produce these effects, hasn't really been studied or well-understood.

FLATOW: Well, you have actually put people inside the fMRI scanner, this giant doughnut of a - all these magnets around it, and you got them drunk.

Dr. GILMAN: Yes.

FLATOW: Did you - you must have had trouble finding volunteers for this.

Dr. GILMAN: Oh, not at all. We were able to do this because of an infusion method called the "alcohol clamp," which was co-developed by colleague, Dr. Ramchandani, and this method actually allowed us to infuse the alcohol intravenously, and control the amount of alcohol infused in a time course.

FLATOW: And what did you discover?

Dr. GILMAN: Well, what we found was that after participants reached our target blood-alcohol concentration, which was 0.08 percent, we showed them pictures of facial expressions, which showed either fearful or neutral facial expression.

And previous research has shown that fearful expressions are signal of a threatening situation, and fearful expressions often activate brain circuits that are involved in fear and avoidance, and what we did was we looked at the response to these faces, and we compared these scans to placebo scans in which the participants didn't receive alcohol. They just received saline instead, intravenously.

FLATOW: Mm hm. And what did you discover?

Dr. GILMAN: What we found was that alcohol actually decreases the sensitivity of brain regions that were involved in detecting danger.

FLATOW: So, you are less sensitive to recognizing danger?

Dr. GILMAN: Mm hm. But there is a decreased sensitivity of these brain regions that you often see activated when people are doing fearful faces which, again, signal a threatening situation.

FLATOW: Would this signal then - or be a reason why people, when you see them inebriated, they are more likely to do risky or stupid things, because they don't realize the danger of what's going?

Dr. GILMAN: Basically, what this indicates is that during intoxication, your threat-detecting brain circuits can't tell the difference between a threatening and non-threatening stimulus. So, we think that this decreased sensitivity is what underlies alcohol's angiolithic effects, but can also cause impaired judgment. If you don't realize that you're in a dangerous situation, you'll be less likely to avoid that situation.

FLATOW: Is there a difference on how people react, you know, there are some people we think of as happy drunks, others as violent drunks, some just get very tired and go to sleep. Could - did you find that difference? Could you see it in the brain scan?

Dr. GILMAN: Mm hm. Well, we pre-screened people to make sure that they experience the euphoric effects of the alcohol, they didn't get sedated, and they didn't get nauseous. So, sort of (unintelligible) for people who would not be angry drunks, or mean drunks, but you can imagine how that could happen, because on one hand, less anxiety might allow us to become more outgoing or friendly.

But on the other hand, and this is more concerning, if our brains fear systems are not as sensitive, we might be less likely to avoid a confrontation, and more likely to end up in a fight or an argument.

FLATOW: Jack, what do you think of this today? I know you like to study behavior.

Dr. GRINBAND: Yeah, this is a great study. I think it's really well-controlled. I'm pretty impressed. I have a question for you. So, you found that there's more activity in the anxiety regions, the amygdala, when subjects were - had alcohol in them. So does that mean that, for neutral faces, the anxiety regions were more active, and people perceived neutral stimuli as anxiety-inducing?

Dr. GILMAN: Not exactly. So, we found that people did have more activation to the neutral faces in these anxiety - in the anxiety circuits, I'm sorry, when they saw the neutral faces under the alcohol infusion. But what we believe is that the brain responds to differences in contrast. So, it's not that you don't feel fear when you're intoxicated, but that when you're intoxicated, the differences between a neutral stimulus and a threatening stimulus, are not as pronounced.

FLATOW: Mm hm. So where do you go from here next? This is just the first of a series of studies, I would think.

Dr. GILMAN: Mm hm. Well, our second big finding in the study was that alcohol activates the reward system of the brain, which might explain it stimulating an addictive property.

FLATOW: Sure.

Dr. GILMAN: And this is of interest to us, because this can have potential clinical implications for people of alcohol-use disorders. And the ideas that we can use this striatal response, as a sort of biomarker, to assess effectiveness of medications being developed for the treatment of alcoholism.

FLATOW: Are you going to look at alcoholics at all?

Dr. GILMAN: We are starting to run the study, and people who drink more heavily in order to see if their striatal response, and the response in their visual and emotional brain circuits, is different from people who drinks socially. So subjects in this study were healthy, social drinkers, meaning that they drink about two days a week, and about three to four drinks per drinking occasion.

FLATOW: So, I guess it wouldn't be ethical for you to give alcoholics something to drink.

Dr. GILMAN: Yeah, yeah. That's a question for IRBs (ph), you know, people who are more qualified to assess the ethics of these studies.

Dr. GRINBAND: So, do you think that you can predict who might become an alcoholic, from scanning the brain?

Dr. GILMAN: I don't know. That - there are certain factors that put people at risk for alcoholism, so a study could be designed to look at, for example, children of alcoholics, you know, after they're 21, to see if they have a different response to the alcohol, than people who are not at risk for alcoholism. But those studies haven't been done.

FLATOW: Do you think you could tell why some people like me, really cheap drunks, after one glass of wine, and some people could put away a whole six-pack, and it doesn't seem to, you know - is there something different going on in their brain activity?

Dr. GILMAN: Mm hm. So, what we found was that the striatal activation was associated with how intoxicated our participants reported feeling. So, I mean, that could be a reason for individual differences in response to alcohol.

FLATOW: And do you find that there's one particular area in the brain that lights up when stimulated by alcohol?

Dr. GILMAN: Yeah, that would be - I mean, we did a general linear-model analysis where we were able to isolate the effect of alcohol in the brain, regardless of the facial stimuli. And we found that the striatum lit up more so than the other brain structures.

FLATOW: We're talking about fMRI scans this hour of Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. You know, we keep hearing that alcohol is a depressant. Do we say the same areas that - lighting up that might be - light up in depression, when using alcohol?

Dr. GILMAN: That's a hard question to answer, because there is evidence that alcohol acts differently in different parts of the blood-alcohol concentration. So that on the rising phase of the blood-alcohol curve, alcohol would act more as a stimulant, than a depressant. And on the following phase it would act more of a depressant.

But in our study, what we did was we clamped the blood-alcohol level at 0.08, and that's when we did our study. So, I think that you would really have to explore the biphasic alcohol curve, to really get at that question.

FLATOW: And it's not that simple a thing about being a stimulant or a depressant.

Dr. GILMAN: Mm hm.

FLATOW: Yeah. And so, next - now you're going to find - go on in your study, and find heavier social drinkers and how do people sign up for this?

Dr. GILMAN: You can go to our website.

FLATOW: And you basically give them this intravenously. You just take them right from sobriety, right up in a matter of seconds or minutes?

Dr. GILMAN: Oh, no, no. Not seconds.

FLATOW: Minutes?

Dr. GILMAN: So, one of the advantages to intravenous alcohol infusion is that first of all, you can control inter-subject variability, and the amount of alcohol that gets into the brain. But another big advantage is that it allows us to deliver the alcohol more quickly, so that we can get people up to the point 0.08 in 15 minutes, which is important when they're lying in the scanner. If they were to drink orally, it would probably take between one and two hours to get to 0.08, depending on body size.

Dr. GRINBAND: Did the subjects report being - feeling drunk?

Dr. GILMAN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, they do. They say it feels different than oral alcohol consumption, but they do report feeling intoxicated.

FLATOW: Do they say, can I come back tomorrow?

Dr. GILMAN: Yes.

FLATOW: Oh, they do? Thank you, Dr. Gilman for taking time to be with us.

Dr. GILMAN: Oh, my pleasure.

FLATOW: Jodi Gilman is a research fellow at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of NIH. Jack, to sum up, anything you want to say about this study, or anything else?

Dr. GRINBAND: Yeah, I think this is a great example of what can be done to study various drugs. I mean, this is directly addressing the previous scholar's question about, you know, how do we study various types of drugs, and can we study different clinical populations, patients, you know, who might be alcoholics or people of various kinds of diseases.

FLATOW: Mm hm. And you can study not just alcohol as a drug, but other drugs.

Dr. GRINBAND: Right. Exactly.

FLATOW: And drug addiction. Study the pathways.

Dr. GRINBAND: Yeah, I mean we've got - at Columbia, we've got lots of studies. Studying depression and various drugs that affect depression, and we're trying to understand the mechanisms by which some of these drugs might alleviate depression. And there's a lot of studies along this (unintelligible).

FLATOW: And as you say, because this is harmless, it doesn't have x-ray radiation and you can study so many things. We're just at the beginning of this era, even though it's about ten years old, we're just at the beginning of fMRI.

Dr. GRINBAND: Yeah. I mean, the only dangers of fMRI are flying metal objects, because this is a big magnet. So, we make all of our subjects take everything metal out of their pockets. And also if you have a pacemaker, or aneurysm clip, or any kind of metal in your body, those are the only dangers. But other than that, it's really a safe and really interesting tool.

FLATOW: I'll bet it is. There are also people who say, hey, you know, it's like modern phrenology, where we used to study the size and the shape of the head.

Dr. GRINBAND: Yeah, well, I think a lot of people sort of feel that because it's so easy to do an fMRI study that you can try to image almost anything. So, you present - people start presenting all kinds of stimuli to subjects, and they see brain activity patterns. And what most people - what a lot of people want to do is say, well this particular area of the brain does this particular process, and that's not necessarily the case.

And so I think there's a lot of studies that came out with sort of, not the best-controlled experiments, and it gave a rise to this impression that this might be a phrenology-kind of science. But I think the really well-designed study, like some of these that we talked about today, control for a lot of these things.

FLATOW: Jack, thank you for taking time to be with us.

Dr. GRINBAND: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Jack Grinband is research scientist in the Department of Neuroscience, and the Program in Cognitive Sciences at Columbia University Medical Center. This program is produced by Karin Vergoth and senior producer Annette Heist. Charles Bergquist is our director.

Flora Lichtman is our producer for digital media. If you want to see a tour of Jack's lab on our website at sciencefriday.com, we've got that fMRI up there, with a subject in it, it's not Flora. Schuman Mai (ph) is our medical - our Metcalfe fellow and Josh Rogosin is our technical director in (inaudible) here in New York.

We also had help in Second-Life from Lynn Collins, Jeff Corbin and the University of Denver. Also next Wednesday, a program note, Neal Conan will broadcast live from the Newseum again. Ken Rudin will get us all caught up on the Democratic primaries in Indiana and North Carolina. If you wanted tickets to the live audience, send an email to tickets@npr.org to reserve your complimentary tickets. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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